A Ringmaster’s Gift Embodies the Magic of Circus
The following is a Folklife Festival story told through the lens of an object: the circus ringmaster’s top hat. Like all good “storied objects,” this one is imbued with the Festival experience of its owner, Imperial OPA Circus ringmaster Timothy Mack. To him the top hat embodies the potential of the circus to build community and unleash creativity—not just for performers and their families, but for the audience and the dreamers in all of us.
Found every day at the Ralph Rinzler Stage and in the Big Top’s final performance, Mack cut a colorful figure in his red sequined tailcoat, handlebar mustache, and black top hat. For each session he would warm up the audiences with hyperbole, pay tribute to the history of circus, and introduce each act with a special highlight.
“The ringmaster’s role in the circus is to roll out the red carpet, to make sure the audience is open and receptive to the acts that are coming,” he explained. “For this Festival, it was like ringmastering for the future generation. We’re rolling out the red carpet for the youth circuses of tomorrow who are coming up today. The top hat is a symbol of that.”
The Festival’s theme of ushering in the next generation played out beyond the circus ring. It was evident in the Circus School where generations of artists worked side by side and in On the Move performances and events, especially the two youth Citizenship Ceremonies. Mack presided over both, welcoming the new citizens to our country with a unique flourish their families will long remember.
“The circus tent is just an empty tent when it first goes up, but then we fill it up with amazing lights and sound and people and costumes and performers,” he mused later. “All these different elements come together to make it a magical place. I think of America as a beautiful country, much like a beautiful tent. But it’s the people and the different cultural heritage and stories they bring that make it into a magical place.”
Mack was so inspired by the cooperation and connections made on the National Mall that his final act of the Festival was to donate his top hat to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“If I could give a little gift to help inspire the ushering in of the future, then that would be perfect!” he told me.
After recovering from ten days on the Mall, I returned to my desk in the air-conditioned comfort of our office. The top hat sits to my right, and I have begun documenting it: measuring it, describing its shape and material, recording its history and related stories. Turning it over, I could see a hand-written note with the afternoon’s schedule written on a folded green card tucked into the sweat band. Further down and out of sight was another note:
To whomever reads this:
I hereby leave you this top hat. It has welcomed many to the stage. It has absorbed my sweat and hugged my thoughts. It now rests in your hands. If you are to wear it as a ringmaster, remember you are a servant who must make the path ahead better for those who come after you.
Tim Mack, Ringmaster
As someone who watched the ringmaster ply his trade during the ten hot and exhilarating days of the Festival, I can attest that he practiced this creed while among us—and we’ll do our collective best to comply going forward.
Erin Younger is the curator of 50 years | 50 Objects: Storied Objects from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.